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The Roots of Evil: Part 1

Being good starts with understanding how it differs from evil

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Rev. Martin Niemöller

It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

What is evil? There are countless opinions expressed, ranging from disagreeing with someone’s opinions and denying their reality to not following the accepted cultural norms of the society you are in.

My opinion is that evil is akin to a cancer, and that we all harbor within ourselves the capacity to both be evil and do evil to others. Likewise, I also believe that there are gradations of evil. You are not either a saint or Satan; there are many levels in between, and what we do to be aware and walk in one direction or the other (toward evil or toward good), defines our path in life as a person.

Are we indifferent or unaware of what is good or evil and just drifting like a leaf on a pond, our behaviors driven by the changing moral winds of society? This is the condition of the majority of any population. Or are we consciously or unconsciously walking a path toward good or toward evil? This is the path of the few, but their actions, like Buddha or Hitler, have the power to shape the lives of others for good or ill. However, just because people of great good or great evil can shape the lives of millions, we all, through our actions toward good or evil, can influence the lives of those around us. To try and live a virtuous life, and through our actions help others on their path and deter evil where we find it, is enough for anyone to say that they have lived well in the end. If this is all we do with our lives, this is enough.

Evil and bad are not synonymous. Bad relates to choices and outcomes. Bad luck, bad decisions, etc. can all range from mild to disastrous. While I can make a decision that causes harm to another, as long as there was no intent to cause harm, the decision was not an evil one, just a bad one. Getting into an auto accident due to momentary distraction (spilling coffee on yourself – the decision to drink hot coffee while driving being the bad decision) for example.

Bad decisions are not only inevitable; they are a necessary part of life. It is through bad choices and their outcomes that we learn what works and what doesn’t and choose better alternatives. Bad choices drive the evolution of good choices, as well as evolution in general.

It is in this regard that the difference between ignorant and stupid is made clear. Ignorance is simply the lack of knowledge of a subject and is correctable through experience or training. When you make a bad decision because you did not know any better, you are ignorant (at least until you learn the lesson of your experience). Stupidity, however, is the failure to learn from experience, despite repeated instances of the event. Repeating the same action and expecting different results is the classic definition of stupidity.

However, evil decisions and actions are driven by intent. When the intent behind an action is to harm or subjugate others for your own gain or pleasure, then the intent is evil, as is the person behind the action. And again, depending on the scope, this can range from lesser evils, such as can exist in unhealthy relationships, to massive evils behind the decisions and actions of Stalin, Mao, and Hitler that lead to the death of millions.

In this regard, objects and events cannot be evil. Guns are not evil any more than hammers or rocks – it is all in what you do with them. Likewise, earthquakes or hurricanes are not evil. Even though thousands may die, there is no ill intent behind them. However, if the actions of others lead to deaths in these events (for example, by not repairing levies to pad your pockets or by situating nuclear power plants on fault lines to lower costs and increase profits), then the people behind those actions have demonstrated evil intent, to the degree that they were conscious of the risks they were exposing others to and took them anyway.

It is one degree of evil to situate the power plant in a high-risk area, knowing that it could cause large-scale death and harm, but you took that risk hoping that the event would not occur and you would get your reward in the interim. It is another (and much greater) degree of evil to situate the plant on the fault line because you are deliberately hoping for or acting to cause an event that can cause mass casualties.

But what about causing harm to others who intend harm to you? I consider the Duty to Protect one of my core duties (as it is for all living things, otherwise, they will not survive). Defending myself against an aggressor is not evil – even if I kill them, though preemptively attacking them on the off chance that they might attack me is evil.

This is where the aggregation of power in the nation-state has led to the systemization of evil. All too often, it is the excuse of preventing future harm to a population that has led to preemptively attacking others before they attack first. This doctrine is as evil as those who willingly support and promote it.

Evil starts with the individual. The individual with the unconscious mind is the fertile ground from which evil acts and evil nature can spring, as they do not understand their motivations. Religious and political ideology (or dogmatic ideology of any kind that restricts free thought) are the seeds that are planted in that fertile ground that can lead to widespread evil acts. Finally, it is evil governments and institutions who fertilize and then reap the harvest for their benefit, of the seeds that they have planted in the susceptibly minds of individuals.

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